Princess Eugenie made quite a statement at the royal wedding this past week when she wore what one blogger labeled, "a doorknocker adorned with an octopus."
In 1886, a devoted (and ultimately outraged) birder hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women's fashion district on 14th Street, tallying the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women as he walked. He counted parts or entire bodies of three bluebirds, two red-headed woodpeckers, nine Baltimore orioles, five blue jays, twenty-one common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he listed 174 birds from forty different species … all of them “victims of fashion.” Gull, tern, heron, and egret populations were especially affected by the fashion craze involving avian accents.
In 1897, Harper’s Bazaar reported, "That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible." More than birds adorned hats in the those days. Fruit, flowers, furs, and even mice and small reptiles nestled atop fashionableladies' heads.Believe me ... I looked. I never did find a photo of a period hat with a "small reptile" ...
although I wonder what we'd see if we had a view of the other side of the creation on the left. Plenty of room for a menagerie. Still, I'm thinking small reptiles just didn't really catch on.
When researching Nora’s Ribbon of Memories, I grew increasingly impressed with the artistry and skill required to be a successful milliner. My main character, Nora (a runaway who works in an 'establishment of ill repute' for a while as a housekeeper) eventually becomes a milliner. At one point, her new employer pulls out a “lightweight buckram frame,” to use as a base for a new creation, and Nora wonders aloud, “How do you turn that thing into a hat?” The milliner goes on to show Nora how its done, “We cover the frame with … bombazine. With a black velvet bow on this side, and a black ostrich feather curving up across the top, it’ll be stunning.”
Another character in the book, Dr. Maude Allbright, is described as someone who "may not have been a slave to fashion ... " but was "definitely a slave to hats." Still, Dr. Allbright eschews the idea of dead birds as adornment.“Every red-tailed hawk in the county will be dive-bombing me if I wear that,” she scoffs, pointing to a French creation sporting three gray birds perched on the crown.
Dr. Allbright orders her hat with “posies instead of dead birds,” and especially likes “a large-brimmed hat entirely camouflaged in felt-gray plumes and curled blue and yellow striped ribbon.”
In the end, Nora opens her own business in fictional Millersburg, Nebraska.
One very helpful resource I discovered while working on Nora was a book called The Female Economy; the Millinery and Dressmaking Trade, 1860-1930. I close with hat history ... and some photos of imaginative head-coverings from my collection of vintage photographs. You'll notice feathers and plumes in abundance. Who knows ... maybe there's a small reptile in there somewhere."When a girl enters a milliner's establishment, she must give three or four month’s time to learning the business. After that, she receives five dollars a week; and in some instances, as she improves, her wages are increased to fifteen."
Hats still make a statement ... I do wonder what Mrs. Howe of Burlingame, Kansas, (whose business card appears above) would say about ...